Brunonia Barry bewitches in her latest novel, The Map of True Places. Poignant, surprising and elegantly intelligent, her latest work is a kaleidoscope of past and present, secrets and unopened truths and along each step, she sweeps the readers away. But it’s not the simplest journey, slicing the literary vein and watching the story pool onto the page. Characters, plot and evolution of a journey don’t simply unfold because you ask the muse nicely. Barry offers a doorway into the mind of the creator, as she reflects upon how the written path evolves in her essay, The Mess in the Middle.
The Mess in the Middle
By Brunonia Barry
Author of The Map of True Places
One year into a two-year book deadline, I have reached page 165 in my manuscript. So far, my characters have obediently done everything I’ve asked of them, but today something changed. This morning, they couldn’t seem to take a step without tripping over their feet. So they decided to stand still. I couldn’t make them go forward, and I couldn’t make them go back. When I asked what the problem was, they told me they were confused.
I’d be panicked about this situation except that I’ve been here before. Twice. And even more if you count the screenplays I wrote when I lived in LA or the books I’ve written for ‘tweens. While I don’t like it, I have come to expect that there are times when characters just won’t move.
For me, this always happens in the same place, maybe not always on page 165 but some place close to it. It’s always in the middle of the book. “What was it you wanted me to do?” seems to be the question my characters ask, and when I tell them, they become skeptical. Since I trust characters over plot every time, I tend to listen when a character tells me “I wouldn’t do that kind of thing.” And the middle of the book is always where they seem to doubt their motivation.
There’s a name for this. It’s called the mess in the middle. It’s an expression I first heard when I was enrolled in one of Robert McKee’s screenwriting workshops. I was writing a comedy called Sluts, a sort of West Coast Sex in the City with an edge, when my characters refused the adventures I was trying to send them on and threatened to infect me with a case of writer’s block if I persisted in giving them directions. They were angry with me, and who could blame them? As a relatively new writer, I was lost and confused.
Confusion, in itself, doesn’t bother me. I honor it as part of the writing process, a byproduct of communing with the muse. It is a frequent ailment, but not a serious one. Unfortunately, the mess in the middle is a different illness. If left unchecked, it can be fatal. I’m willing to wager that this midpoint is where most writers abandon their projects. I know it has been true for me. I have several unfinished manuscripts sitting in drawers, including that screenplay. One day, knowing what I know now, I may open the drawer and dust off those stories. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you exactly what the mess in the middle is, and what you can do about it.
I’m sure you’ve heard that old story about the mountain. You are climbing a tree lined mountain trail in an effort to see the view from the top. You’ve been walking for quite a while. About halfway up, you realize that you don’t have any idea where you are. You can no longer see the bottom of the mountain, and you cannot yet see the top. You begin to panic. If it were up to you, you’d just quit, but you can’t. You’re halfway up the side of a mountain for God’s sake.
So what do you do? If you’ve prepared for the hike, you’ve been smart enough to bring a map. Though it’s an exercise in blind faith, you have no choice but to follow it.
In writing, my map is my step outline. Though I write free form for quite a while when I’m starting a project, I am not a pantser. I believe very strongly in outlines. Once I’ve captured the voice of the characters and know them well enough to ask that first what if question that propels them forward, it is time to create a step outline.
My outline is simple enough. It contains only the major steps of the story. Sometimes it’s a sentence or paragraph, sometimes a list of bullet points. I spend more time on it that any other aspect of my writing, because it’s the only tool that allows me to see the big picture. It particularly helps with pacing and with the progression of character changes. If I follow it, I seldom get into trouble.
The problem is, sometimes I don’t follow it. I am moving along so fast, and the story is going so well, that I just keep writing. This is exactly what I discovered this morning when I went back to look at my outline. A few days ago, I was writing so furiously that I skipped a step, and, as a result, my characters missed an important turn. If they had reached the impasse immediately, I might have spotted my omission.
Unfortunately, the dead end hadn’t come until the following chapter, several turns later.
If I hadn’t taken the time to create my map, I might never have found my mistake. The manuscript might have ended up in that drawer with my screenplay. Luckily, with my step outline and just a bit of work, I was able to get my characters back on track. They are now happily moving forward.
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